What’s Causing Mysterious ‘Worldwide Hum?’

June 23, 2016

In the spring of 2012, when I was living near the coastal village of Sechelt, on British Columbia’s picturesque Sunshine Coast, I began hearing a humming sound, which I thought were float planes.

The noise usually started later at night, between 10 and 11 p.m. My first clue that something unusual was happening came with the realization that the sound didn’t fade away, like plane noises typically do. And the slightest ambient noise – exhaling audibly, even turning my head quickly – caused it to momentarily stop. One night after the sound started I stepped outside the house. Nothing.

I was the only person in the house who could hear it; my family said they didn’t know what I was talking about.

Naturally, I assumed something in the house was the culprit, and I searched for the source in vain. I even ended up cutting the power to the entire house. The sound got louder.

While I couldn’t hear the sound outdoors, I could still hear it in my car at night with the windows closed and the ignition off. I drove for miles in every direction, and it was still there in the background when I stopped the car. I was able to rule out obvious sources: industrial activity, marine traffic, electric substations and highway noise.

When I searched on the internet for “unusual low-frequency humming noise,” I soon realized that others had conducted the same search. I was part of the small fraction of people who can hear what is called the “Worldwide Hum” or, simply, the “Hum.”

The questions motivating me and thousands of others were the same: “What’s causing this? Can it be stopped?”

One geoscientist’s theory

The classic description of the Hum is that it sounds like a truck engine idling. For some, it’s a distant rumbling or droning noise. It can start and stop suddenly or wax and wane over time. For others, the Hum is loud, relentless and life-altering.

I eventually came across one of the few serious papers on the topic. It was written in 2004 by geoscientist David Deming (who’s also a Hum hearer).

Deming began by describing the standard history: The Hum was first documented in the late 1960s, around Bristol, England. It first appeared in the United States in the late 1980s, in Taos, New Mexico.

He then examined the competing hypotheses for the source of the Hum. Many have pointed to the electric grid or cellphone towers. But this theory is dismissed on two grounds: cellphones didn’t exist in the 1960s, and the frequency emitted by both cell towers and the electric grid can be easily blocked by metal enclosures.

He wondered whether mass hysteria was to blame, a psychological phenomenon in which rumor and “collective delusions” lead to the appearance of physical ailments for which there’s no medical explanation. The fact that so many people have researched the Hum on their own, using a search engine – rather than hearing about it from some other person – moves the conversation away from delusion and hysteria spread by word of mouth.

Some have dismissed cellphone towers as a potential source. ‘Cell Towers’ via www.shutterstock.com

Deming looked at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), an isolated military compound in Alaska that uses radio waves to study outer space and for testing advanced communication techniques – and a favorite focus of conspiracy theorists, who have accused the facility of acts ranging from mind control to weather control. He studied the possibility of otoacoustic emissions, which are naturally occurring sounds caused by the vibration of hair cells in the ear.

Deming eventually fingered Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio waves (between 3 kHz and 30 kHz) as the most likely culprit. The world’s military powers use massive land-based and airborne transmitters on these frequencies in order to communicate with submerged submarines. Radio waves at these frequencies can penetrate up to a solid inch of aluminum.

In the paper, Deming proposes a simple and elegant experiment for testing this hypothesis. Hum hearers randomly enter three identical-looking boxes. The first box blocks VLF radio signals, the second box is an anechoic (soundproof) chamber and the third box is the control.

He left the experiment for others to pursue, and while there are some practical difficulties with the design, Deming’s overall concept has motivated the experiments I am currently conducting.

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